Robb of San Clemente, Calif., plants a kiss on the
headstone of Marilyn Monroe at Pierce Brothers
Cemetery in Los Angeles, a stop on the Dearly
Departed Hollywood bus tour.
ANGELES — Exploiting the dead is distasteful. I think we
all can agree on that. Let the departed, dearly and
otherwise, rest in peace. For when we die — sorry to
plunge you into existential despair so early in the day,
but it will happen — our dignity and right to be treated
with a modicum of human decency should not expire with us.
spite of my better self, I was drawn to a twisted,
shameless and undeniably fascinating Hollywood tour called
"Dearly Departed: The Tragical History Tour,"
which for $50 will expose the seamy underbelly (no doubt
liposucked, to leave a better-looking corpse) of the
glitzy TV and film industry and those often-flawed
personages that populate it.
I’m such a bad person. Something, probably buried deep
in my childhood subconscious, makes me find allure in the
lurid. Forgive me, please.
better yet, go on the tour yourself and see if I’m
wrong. Discover whether the three-hour excursion into the
dark side of Tinseltown truly is as tasteless as a
Twinkie, and with about as much nutritional value as
edifying brain food, as well.
didn’t walk, so much as slink, into the Sunset Boulevard
offices of Dearly Departed one recent Saturday for its
afternoon thanatic outing. (There are, please note, more
specific packages, such as the Helter Skelter Tour of
Manson Family sites and the "Carpen-Tour,"
tracing the bright career and sad demise of seminal ‘70s
songstress Karen Carpenter, but those are for hardened
veterans; the general "Tragical" tour is sort of
the gateway drug.)
a naughty schoolboy ducking into a peep show, I tightened
the draw strings on my hoodie. When I opened the door, I
was greeted with wall-to-wall Death of the Stars mementos,
from Lana Turner’s favorite gold-plated cigarette
lighter (she died of throat cancer) to Marilyn Monroe’s
last (unpaid) telephone bill to Rock Hudson’s bedpost
and Rolodex to a chunk of the tile floor from the bungalow
where Rudolph Valentino died.
also was greeted by the toothy grin and alarmingly strong
handshake of Scott Michaels, Dearly Departed’s owner,
who quickly provided me with absolution for my prurient
interests — or, you might say, merely delivered cogent,
if sophistic, dissembling disguised as incisive social
commentary (you decide).
years ago, when we started this company, everyone was
giving us the stink eye whenever we passed anyone’s
death house," Michaels said. "Now there’s not
a single company that doesn’t pass Michael Jackson’s
death house. Things have changed. I mean, look at the
tabloids, you know.
is 100 years’ worth of deaths. A lot of names of the
dead on our tour aren’t thrown around anymore. But their
deaths are so interesting that perhaps somebody, after
taking the tour, might be inspired to rent one of their
movies. It may not be the way (the stars) wanted to be
remembered, but then again, attention is attention in this
town. They are public figures. Just because you’re dead
doesn’t mean it stops."
does have a point. When is the last time you’ve thought
about William Frawley (the droll Fred Mertz on "I
Love Lucy") or Brian Keith (beloved "Family
Affair" patriarch) or Marie Prevost (silent screen
diva turned pop-song subject)? They all are featured on
the tour, though details of these stars’ demise didn’t
exactly send the hearts of the 11 women (no men, sans
yours truly) on the bus fluttering like when guide Brian
Donnelly got to the Whitney Houston-Marilyn Monroe-Michael
Jackson tragic triad.
love this (tour), and this is our fourth time," said
Kourtney Robb, part of a gaggle of gawkers up from San
Clemente, Calif. "It’s a guilty pleasure."
of like chocolate except with more bite.
you delude yourself into thinking, "Privacy be
damned; these are celebrities and nothing’s off-limits
by our click-bait, sleazy social-media standards,"
you can sit back in the van’s plush seats and spend
three hours being driven around the streets of Hollywood,
Westwood, Beverly Hills, Century City and West L.A. with
the manic running commentary of Donnelly, whose data
base-sized knowledge of the sites and circumstances behind
stars’ deaths makes him a walking, talking celebrity
pseudo-coroner — or maybe just an amateur obit writer.
(Big props to Donnelly, by the way, for not once
succumbing to euphemism: Stars died; they did not
"pass away," or "cross over" or
"find eternal rest." OK, he did use "kick
the bucket" once, but in a thoroughly ironic
weaves a narrative around each death, peppered with
pun-laden quips and occasionally unbidden, Roger Ebertian
critiques of subjects’ acting chops. Only occasionally
does he resort to props, such as distressing 911 emergency
recordings he cues up on the dashboard CD player. He
manages, with impressive hand-eye motor skills, to
navigate through gawd-awful L.A. traffic while pointing to
the architectural anomalies of a certain apartment house
where a B-movie actor expired and engaging his guests in
witty chit-chat. His delivery resembled nothing less than
the sped-up voice rattling off side effects in TV drug
the oversized van — white and black with the company
logo emblazoned on the sides, though I really think they
should consider switching to a hearse — barreled west
down Beverly Boulevard, Donnelly rendered the crowd
slack-jawed by his rapid-fire, "Rainman"-like
litany of the celebs who were "pronounced dead"
(note the subtle distinction) at Cedars-Sinai Medical
(breath) ... But not Michael Jackson — that was at UCLA
everybody in the van — tourgoers ranged from mid-20s to
mid-50s; the tour, for obvious reasons, restricts minors
— knew all these stars. Little matter. Donnelly
considers it his job to immortalize those forgotten of the
his "tribute" to Prevost, the sultry silent
movie star who (for a while) made a successful transition
to talkies and made 121 films before, alas, dying alone at
her nondescript apartment in the "Aftonian,"
6230 Afton Place, Los Angeles. Donnelly pulled the van
over, put it in park and turned to face his audience.
this book called ‘Hollywood Babylon,’ and because of
that book, Marie Prevost is known as ‘The Woman Eaten By
Her Dog,’ " Donnelly said. "Complete bull----.
Repeat: They wrote that her dachshund ate her. (The
author) got three parts of the story correct. She was a
woman. She owned a dog. She died. Yes, it was a while
before they found her body. But a dog wouldn’t do that.
The dachshund did bite her, not to consume her but to wake
her up — like any dog would do when they see you
sleeping. But the story has (persisted) for years. Nick
Lowe wrote a great song about it."
Donnelly cued up the CD player and this chorus filled the
van: "She was a winner/That became the doggie’s
veering back into traffic, he made a final comment about
the unfortunate pop-culture peccadillo of turning rumor
into fact: "For instance, Mama Cass did not choke on
a ham sandwich. She died of a heart attack. Now, it is
true that she died in the same room Keith Moon died of a
drug overdose four years later. Coincidence. That’s all
the old chestnut that "comedy is tragedy plus
time," details of the long-ago deaths seem easier to
absorb than those of stars in our cohort.
Donnelly rolled by the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where Houston
died of a drug overdose in the bathtub of Room 434, he
played the 911 tape from February 2012. Most listened
staring at the floor. Silence afterward. To his credit,
Donnelly played it straight in detailing the events and
even made a self-deprecating remark.
family bought every stick of furniture out of the hotel
room," he said, "and word is they had it
destroyed. I don’t know if they actually did, but I
heard they didn’t want the bathtub winding up someplace
weird — like in our office. I mean, Scott has Karen
Carpenter’s sink, for God’s sake."
there is no precise end to a celeb mourning period, no
expiration date when it’s OK to have a little respectful
fun with a death. Not long after Donnelly’s rather sober
telling of the Houston saga, he drove by the Highland
Garden Hotel, at 7047 Franklin, in Los Angeles. In Room
105 in 1970, Joplin died of an overdose. A huge Joplin
fan, Donnelly wove a story about how he has spent the
night in 105 — "a 47th birthday present to
myself" — and "laid out masking tape where
Janis’ body was." He said the room is a tourist
attraction, and the hotel is just fine with that.
"People hide notes to Janis in the room," he
stories just kept coming. We passed Bungalow 3 of the
Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi died in 1982; saw the
front entrance of the Viper Room in West Hollywood, where
River Phoenix died in 1993 (and heard another disturbing
911 call, made by little brother, Joaquin); stopped
briefly at the Afton Arms apartments on El Centro Avenue
in Los Angeles where Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist
Hillel Slovak OD’d; and spent considerable time at
apartment No. 4 at 120 Sweetzer Ave. in Hollywood, where
young actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by a stalker
in 1989, a crime that led to several anti-stalking laws.
much loss. So much wasted life.
promised this "tragical mystery tour" was going
to be a laugh riot.
lighten the mood — and I know this sounds odd, but it
helped — Donnelly drove us to Pierce Brothers Westwood
Village Memorial Park Cemetery, where many big names are
buried. He handed us maps with names and arrows — Burt
Lancaster, Natalie Wood, Brian Keith, Jack Lemmon, Rodney
Dangerfield (inscribed on headstone: "There goes the
neighborhood"), Truman Capote, Don Knotts, Walter
Matthau, Merv Griffin ("I will not be right back
after this message"), Farrah Fawcett, Roy Orbison,
Billy Wilder ("I’m a writer, but then, nobody’s
perfect"), Dean Martin and, of course, Marilyn
some fun here," Donnelly said, jumping out and
running around the side to open the doors.
all the women on the tour — every single one of the San
Clemente contingent — made a beeline to Marilyn’s
was a crowd, and people waited patiently for their turns.
Donnelly warned there might be lipstick smooches on the
headstone, and there were. Robb reached in her purse and
unsheathed her hot-pink lipstick and added a new coat.
Then she bent slightly over — kind of like Marilyn’s
iconic pose on the subway grate, actually — and planted
a kiss next to her name.
she said, daubing her lips, "hope I don’t catch
Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
(855) 600-DEAD (3323); dearlydepartedtours.com
recommended for children under 12. Parental discretion is